Apparently some US journalism academic named Tanni Haas has written a book called Making it in the Political Blogosphere: The World’s Top Political Bloggers Share the Secrets to Success . I’m not interested in the subject per se, because I long ago concluded that the recipe was both obvious and inherently boring: adopt a predictable, aggressively tribal stance that will attract a loyal audience wanting to have its prejudices confirmed in a way that allows members to see themselves as the true cognoscenti without ever actually needing to think, question or doubt.
I’m much more interested in the comments of a couple of “top political bloggers” about the greatly increased tribalism evident today by comparison with the early days of the political blogosphere. Kevin Drum, for example, says:
When I started out, there was much more of a tendency to engage with the other side. Liberals and conservatives would attack each other, but we’d also engage with each other in at least a moderately serious way. Today, you get almost none of that. There’s very little engagement between left and right. And what engagement there is tends to be pure attack. There’s no real conversation at all. That’s a difference that I think professionalization has brought about. The political blogosphere has become more tribal.
Tyler Cowen agrees with the observation but has a slightly different explanation:
A good point, but I blame professionalization less than Kevin does. Maybe some of us are simply are a bit sick of each other, and the accumulated slights and misunderstandings weigh more heavily on our emotional responses than does the feeling of generosity from working together in the same “office.” I predict that a given experienced blogger is likely to feel more sympathy for new bloggers, but on average I doubt if the new bloggers are better or more tolerant.
Which means we mostly have ourselves to blame.
As I’ve already foreshadowed, in my view it’s unquestionably true that that there’s much less “inter-tribal” communication than there was when I first started blogging around 2002. However I’m less sure of the reasons than Drum or Cowen. Troppo tends even now to retain a greater level of “inter-tribal” communication than most other Australian political blogs, but it’s certainly at a much lower level than it was years ago. I must confess I don’t miss visits from the Bolt/Blair attack dogs or their extreme left equivalents, but there were also at least a few occasions when interesting conversations actually occurred. I have always regarded the ideals of deliberative democracy championed by Habermas and others as a tad naive, but I ‘m still attracted to the notion of “agonism” (as opposed to antagonism) propounded by Mouffe and Laclau:
Agonists are skeptical about the capacity of politics to eliminate, overcome, or circumvent deep divisions within our society—of class, culture, gender, ideology, etc. As such, they find liberalism, communitarianism, and multiculturalism wanting. These theories—which have been the backbone of political theory for the past thirty years—are essentially optimistic about the possibility of finding a harmonious and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation. Agonists, then, both claim that this optimism is unjustified and, hence, re-orient political theory to another question: how should we deal with irreducible difference? In the view of agonists, proponents of the aforementioned traditions, in keeping their eyes fixed on forms of utopian cooperation, have failed to respond usefully to the messiness of contemporary political practice….
Agonists believe that we should design democracy so as to optimise the opportunity for people to express their disagreements. However, they also maintain, we should not assume that conflict can be eliminated given sufficient time for deliberation and rational agreement. In other words, conflict has a non-rational or emotional component. These two positions mean that they are opposed to aspects of consociational and deliberative theories of democracy. The former, because it wants to mute conflict through elite consensus, the latter because it gives a rationalist picture of the aspirations of democracy.
Chantal Mouffe says, “I use the concept of agonistic pluralism to present a new way to think about democracy which is different from the traditional liberal conception of democracy as a negotiation among interests and is also different from the model which is currently being developed by people like Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. While they have many differences, Rawls and Habermas have in common the idea that the aim of the democratic society is the creation of a consensus, and that consensus is possible if people are only able to leave aside their particular interests and think as rational beings. However, while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.”
Mouffe suggests that the aim of any political deliberation is not “consensus”, because that will usually be impossible, but a workable accommodation between competing interests and viewpoints. Democratic deliberation should aim at turning “enemies” into mere political adversaries or rivals, and potentially violent antagonism into “agonism” where peaceful accommodations/compromises between opponents are not only possible but the normal and expected outcome of political disputation.
However, the success of extremist movements like the US Republican Tea Party, media tribalism fostered by Fox News and local attack dog imitators like Tony Abbott and Andrew Bolt, makes even the limited aims of “agonism” seem naive and unachievable. Prominent local left-leaning equivalents are harder to name (although maybe I’m just exposing my own biases), but bloggers like Antony Lowenstein and the entire silly brigade at “The Political Sword” spring to mind.
Despite those depressing developments, I still see serious, civil political blogs like this one as a potentially valuable arena for fostering agonism. However that isn’t likely to occur if people increasingly retreat to their tribal enclosures, emerging only for occasional mass attacks on opposing camps. Unfortunately I can’t actually think of any feasible ways to reverse this tribalist tendency. Anyone have any ideas?